Tuesday 4 August 2015

India (Rajasthan and Kashmir) Trip - 25th July to 1st August - Background and Day 1

It had been sometime since my last proper foreign birding trip which was to Colombia in May 2012, before the birth of Tobias, and I was eager for some ticks and some of the thrill that comes with stepping into an unfamiliar avifauna where each call is unrecognised and birds appear that do not immediately click into a familiar search image. So when Ian Merrill invited me on a trip with Andy Bunting and Martin Kennewell, three long term travelling mates, I jumped at the chance (after gaining permission from Sarah of course). This trip to India had been planned by Ian Merrill to mainly target such rare species as Lesser Florican (Endangered) and Striated Grassbird (Vulnerable) in the grasslands of Rajastan at Surajpur and Sonkhaliya, respectively, as well as the recently ‘discovered’ birding area around Srinagar in Kashmir for species such as Kashmir Nuthatch, Spectacled Finch and Kashmir Flycatcher plus the slim chance of Western Tragopan, a dream bird. Kashmir was somewhat of an afterthought since Lesser Florican had to be seen at this time of year when it performs its whacky vertical jumping display but it would be a long trip just to see this species so Kashmir seemed a good choice to see a couple of localised species - the others had travelled widely in India previously. However, we realised that Kashmir would be past its peak in terms of the birding season since most species would have finished singing and thus be more difficult to locate.

Ian, Andy and Martin had previously used Asian Adventures and due to their previous excellent service the Rajastan element of the current trip was booked via them. Asian Adventures booked all hotels, provided bird guides and drivers, provided vehicles and provided all the ground ‘support’ that we needed. Asian Adventures were excellent and I would highly recommend them. The Kashmir element of the trip was arranged by Dr. Reyaz Qureshi (email: dr.rqureshi@gmail.com) who is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Tourism & Hospitality Management at the University of Kashmir. Dr. Qureshi arranged a driver and guide, our guide was good but not a bird guide and in hindsight it would have been advantageous to have booked the Kashmir element through Asian Adventures. We needed to use Dr. Qureshi since we had obtained GPS references for some of the key species from Birdtour Asia and, naturally, they were keen to ‘protect’ their sites from other tour operators. Asian Adventures do have experience of birding in Kashmir and a knowledge of calls and habitat requirements would have been helpful in locating our quarry species.

25th July – 10:15 flight from London Heathrow Terminal 5 at 10:15, arrive Delhi in the evening. Met by Asian Adventures at airport and transferred to Hotel Vikram for overnight stay.

26th July - Early Morning drive to Surajpur Wetland for couple of hours birding before 8 hour drive to Ajmer stopping at Nahargah Biological Park en-route. Overnight stay at Hotel Master Paradise in Ajmer.

27th July - Full day birding in Sonkhaliya approximately 1.5 to 2 hours from Ajmer. Overnight stay at Hotel Master Paradise.

28th July - Half day birding in Ajmer thorn forest just outside of town. Drive back to Delhi stopping in Nahargah Biological Park to break the journey. Arrive Delhi in the early evening. Overnight stay at Hotel Shanti Palace .

29th July - Early morning transfer to Delhi airport to connect to 05:45 flight to Srinagar, Kashmir. Drive from Srinigar to Yousmarg (two hours) and birded Yousmarg for remainder of stay. Overnight stay in Marco Polo Houseboat, this was booked through Asian Adventures.

30th July – Drive from Srinagar to Yousmarg and spent the entire day birding the area. Overnight stay in Marco Polo Houseboat.

31st July – Morning at Dachigam National Park, 30 minutes from Srinigar then afternoon at Shankarachariya Temple and Dal Lake. Overnight stay in Marco polo Houseboat.

1st August - Drive from Srinagar to Yousmarg and spent the morning birding. Transfer to Srinigar Airport at 11:30 for 16:15 flight to Delhi. Transfer from Delhi Airport to Hotel Shanti Palace for dinner and freshen up. Transfer to Delhi Airport for 01:50 flight on 2nd August, landed in Heathrow at 06:15.

 Google Earth screen grab showing main sites (marked by yellow push-pin) visited in Rajasthan with Sonkhaliya and Ajmer in the south-west, Nahargah Biological Park to the south-west of centre and the Surajour Wetland in the north-east - Click on image for larger version

Google Earth screen grab showing main sites (marked by yellow push-pin) visited in Kashmir with Yusmarg in the south-west and the remaining sites in the north - Click on image for larger version

Day 1 - Diary
I was up at 05:00 and after a bit of final packing and faffing I was on my way to Heathrow Airport Terminal 5.  So, I arrived at Heathrow airport in good time but to massive queues at the bag drops, I am not really sure of the benefit of an online check-in when one still has to queue as if to check-in, still with some discrete queue jumping I left a line of several 100 people to join the ‘assistance’ desk where there were four people and after a bit of blagging I checked in my bags and was at security. Security was a breeze (other than a virtual full strip these days) and by 08:30 I found myself in Gordon Ramsey’s “Plane Food’ enjoying smoked salmon and scrambled egg and coffee. I boarded the flight at 09:30 for a 10:15 departure but for some unexplained reason the plane did not depart until 10:50. Still, I had plenty of space, enjoyed a pre-flight sparkling wine and was off. The flight was, thankfully I guess, uneventful, a few bottles of wine and a bit of genning-up as the flight took me out of the UK over the Thames Estuary, then over Brussels, the Czech Republic, the Black Sea, the famous migration spot of Batumi, across Georgia via T’bilisi, over Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan to the south of Kabul and over Pakistan to the south of Lahore and over many other areas between now plagued by religious in-fitting. The flight landed in Delhi at 23:15 and I was met at the airport by Asian Adventures and transported through the dark and bustling streets of Delhi to the Hotel Vikram where Martin was tucked up in bed. Ian and Andy’s flight was delayed by two hours due to a storm in Amsterdam which grounded flights and so they didn’t arrive until around 04:00.

Links to the other Days of the Trip:
Day 2 - Surajpur Wetland and Nahargah Biological Park
Day 3 - Sonkhaliya
Day 4 - Ajmer Thorn Forest and drive back to Delhi
Day 5 - Fly Delhi to Shrinigar (Kashmir) then Yousmarg
Day 6 - Yousmarg
Day 7 - Dachigam National Park, Shankarachariya Temple and Dal Lake
Day 8 - Yousmarg then return to Delhi and flights home

If you have any comments or queries on this post then please do not hesitate to contact me at simon@ecosa.co.uk